What Do You Mean, Float a Horse?

Dr. Kang checking Buck for trigger points along his spine.
Dr. Kang assesses Buck for a chiropractic adjustment. My friend, Shella, and his assistant, Georgie are helping.

Most people assume I have horses so I can ride them.  And I do. But the truth is, as much as I love riding, I love taking care of horses even more. And so, I thought it would be fun to share a little of what happens when our vet pays a ranch call to the farm. Dr. Gene Koo Kang came by over the weekend to “adjust” and “float” our retired race horse, Buck, and he was kind enough to let me snap a few pictures while he worked. If you haven’t been around horses much, some of what you are about to see might shock you.  All of this was news to me when I first got Dart and Joey over ten years ago.

Dr. Kang locates a trigger point.
Dr. Kang locates a trigger point along Buck’s spine.

Yes, it is possible to “float” an 11-hundred pound horse. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, the adjustment, which had nothing to do with Buck’s attitude. Buck has a bad stifle or knee joint in his left hind leg from his days on the track.  We don’t know much about it because he wasn’t our horse when he got hurt.  But we do know that sometimes when Buck steps backwards, his bad knee locks up, leaving his leg stuck in the air. We also believe the injured knee causes him some pain, especially when it rains.

Equine Chiropractic Technique
Healing hands, equine chiropractic technique

Fortunately for Buck, Dr. Kang is an equine (and canine) chiropractor. We started having him do adjustments on Buck right after we moved here three years ago and we’ve seen Buck’s pain lessen and the atrophied muscles in the hip over his injured knee regenerate themselves.   At first Buck was nervous about being adjusted.  But now, he seems to understand it helps him feel better and I think he actually enjoys it.

Moving on to dental work.
Moving on to dental work.

Less fun for Buck, and all concerned, is the dental work. Unlike human teeth which stop growing, a horse’s teeth continue to grow throughout its life.  That’s why old horses (and old people) are sometimes referred to as “long in the tooth.”  A horse with overgrown teeth can’t chew its food properly and that interferes with digestion.  Over time, you end up with a skinny, malnourished horse even if he is “eating like a horse.”

Floating Buck's Teeth
Floating Buck’s Teeth

That’s where the “floating” comes in.  “Floating a horse” simply means using a heavy metal file or rasp to grind down its overgrown teeth. And here’s the shocker. Many vets do this with power tools! Dr. Kang’s tool of choice is a reciprocating saw, a tool usually used in demolition.  You might know it by its common (brand) name, a Sawzall.  This type of saw moves a jagged saw blade back-and-forth with enough force to cut holes through floors and walls.

This is the "float" that "floats a horse".
This is the “float” that “floats a horse.”

Relax, there’s not a saw blade gyrating in Buck’s mouth. Instead, Dr. Kang fits the tool with a metal rasp known as a “float.”  The name comes from the motion of the rasp moving or “floating” back-and-forth over the surface of the horse’s teeth. Thus the confusing phrase “floating a horse.” (And now you know).

The tool doesn't hurt Buck.  But it makes a lot of noise.
This won’t hurt a bit.

Horses don’t have nerves in their teeth like people do so filing them, even with a power tool, doesn’t hurt. But grinding teeth with a metal rasp makes a heck of a noise! So Buck was given a mild sedative to keep him calm. The metal frame around his gums is there to hold open his mouth so Dr. Kang can see inside and work.

Dr. Kang says when the sedative wears off, Buck won't remember what happened.
Look Mom, no cavities!

It sounds miserable.  But Dr. Kang assures me that when the sedative wears off, the horses have no memory of what happened. And sure enough, Buck returned to the pasture after his float and happily munched grass for the rest of the day, seemingly unconcerned about having just had a power tool reciprocating in his mouth.

Dr. Kang assessing Leah's knees.
Dr. Kang assessing Leah’s knees.

After he finished with Buck, Dr. Kang did a wellness exam on Leah, the newest horse in our barn.  Leah is a beautiful 29-year old Arabian mare named for Princess Leia in Star Wars.  She had been my friend, Shella’s, horse for most of her life and after they parted ways, she always remained in Shella’s heart.  When Shella discovered recently that Leah was stuck in a less-than-ideal situation, she worked it out to regain custody of Leah and bring her home!

Leah's knees show signs of advanced arthritis.
The thickness in Leah’s knees and the bowing of her legs is caused by osteoarthritis.

The years have not been kind of Leah and she now has severe osteoarthritis in both of her front legs.  Nothing can be done to reverse the arthritis but Dr. Kang recommends nutritional supplements such as glucosamine and fish oil to slow the progression.  And now that Leah is back in Shella’s care, she will get regular hoof trimming from our farrier. The farrier can adjust the angle of her hooves to put Leah into better balance and alleviate some of the pressure on her joints.

Despite her arthritis, Leah can still trot and prance.
Despite her arthritis, Leah is a happy and active horse.

We don’t know what caused Leah’s arthritis.  But it serves as a good reminder of why regular hoof care is so important to the health of a horse. Dr. Kang says Leah also needs to have her teeth floated, but that’s a project for another day. We have to come up with a way to help her stand while she’s sedated.  Her front legs are too weak to do it on their own.  Bob is engineering a system involving some straps and a sling.  When it’s ready Dr. Kang will come back to float Leah. We’ll show you how it goes here in the blog.

6 thoughts on “What Do You Mean, Float a Horse?”

  1. Amazing stuff! I don’t own a horse, but have always wanted one. I probably will never have the opportunity, but I can vicariously share in all the experiences of horse ownership via your blog. Fun!

  2. Great pictures Deb! You should look into TMJ awareness dentistry and ask the Dr if he would be open to trying it. The muscles that connect to the temperomandibular joint (in the jaw) run the length of the horses body. I learned while I was interning in Idaho that floating the teeth at an elevated angle (not at the naturally lower angle the head is at when they are eating) can cause serious jaw pain and send the entire body out of alignment. Interesting stuff and can save you a lot of money because the adjustments will hold better and the dentistry is way less invasive…no power tool and less sedation needed…the woman I used to work for wrote some great articles…www.balancedequinewellness.com

  3. Fantastic pictures. I have a dear friend who is soon going to be relocating back to Oregon after having lived in LA for about 25 years. She grew up on a dairy farm along the coast and wants to start an inn in Oregon’s wine country. I will tell her about your blog. She’ll love it!

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